early-01.jpg (11953 bytes)UK Subs - The Early Years - By Nicky Garratt

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Chapter One - London

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UK Subs - The Early Years
1 London
2 Band From The Pubs
3 John Peel & CID
4 In The Charts
5 U.S. Subs
6 Top 10 & The New Subs
7 Endangered Subs
8 The Cold War
9 Aftermath

Table Of Contents
UK Subs Main Page

Back To Bands

My first Punk Rock encounter was in London’s Hyde Park one mild morning in the summer of 1976. In some ways disillusioned with the musical path I’d taken, the move to London was a chance to pump some much needed vitality into my career and maybe secure some higher profile gigs. Acting as a scout for my band, a ‘Soft Machine’ style ensemble from Leicestershire (sax player J.B. later joined Dexy’s Midnight Runners and appears on their first album), I was in London looking for a new base. After parking the car in the underground car park and surfacing next to Speakers Corner, I spotted a couple slumped across the bench at the side of the path cutting diagonally across the park. They were clad in black plastic trousers and trash bin liners held together with the inevitable safety pins. With hair, florescent green on her and red on him, evenly spiked across their heads, they got up as I passed the bench. I watched them saunter off in no particular direction apparently uninterested in the ‘straight world’ around them. I was fascinated. They disappeared as two day-glow dots against the grass.

It wasn’t until January 1st 1977 that I packed up my stuff and moved to ‘The Smoke’, along with two of the band. Until we could find our own place, we stayed at my friend’s apartment in the Pimlico area close to the Tate gallery.

Piltdown Man - 1973, Nicky On Far LeftStarting as early as 1970, I played guitar in a succession of bands playing a range of music from hard rock/blues to pop/soul and studied classical guitar under Cathleen Warner. I was attending Lutterworth grammar school in the Leicestershire countryside, a school which spawned the likes of Dave Martin (Later of Chelsea), and John Ashton (Psychedelic Furs), as well as various musicians from a prior era. It was there that the genesis of my first serious band, Piltdown Man, started. Leicester was quite a hot bed of music back then. Family, our local heroes, were at their height and Black Widow had recorded a number of albums (both of these bands had unusual line ups which included violin, vibes, pianos etc). By 1974 I was a member of a loose collection of musicians hastily thrown together in neighboring Northamptonshire to fill a cancelation at a barn dance. After an interesting morning man-handling the piano over a plowed field on the back of a flat trailer pulled by an ancient tractor, we played the show. Our set, a mixture of pop and soul classics, went over quite well with the crowd, and we decided to stay together as a band. Within a year the band fell apart, but I made friends with the other guitar player Paul Onguth who previously played in legendary local Northamptonshire rock band Stone Wall. Paul and I talked about moving to London and turning “pro”, and when a few months later I told him I was going to do it, he said he would be interested but needed a few months. By this time I was playing in another band in Leicester which played covers at working men’s clubs backing an older singer (Barry), but we were also rehearsing as an instrumental “fusion” band and making plans to move to London. The drummer, only sixteen, dropped out due to school exams, while the rest of us left for the big city. I hoped to secure a new place to live, then, at some later date, persuaded the band to let Paul join.

Kate and three other nurses were living in an apartment on the third floor of a street of Victorian town houses in Pimlico. I knew her from the Northamptonshire crowd and she let us “crash” there until we found a place. During that time, Kate and I became involved and I moved into the room which she shared with her best friend Jane. I lived there for a few months until the band moved into an apartment in Brixton.

Despite renting the apartment, I still spent a good deal of time at Kate’s - not surprising considering the filth which other band members chose to live in. Things hit an all-time low at the Brixton apartment when I loaded the toaster with two slices of bread one morning and on returning to the kitchen from the bathroom, found the toast vigorously jerking around in the toaster. Suddenly the motion stopped. When the toast was removed the smoking remains of a charred mouse was seen crushed against the bottom where it had been scavenging for crumbs only to be entombed by the bread.

One day, via Kate, I got the awful news that Paul had died in a motorbike accident up in the middlelands. I went back North for his funeral.

For years I had been dissatisfied with the lack of energy in the bands I had been in and now somehow it seemed more urgent to follow my instincts. The band was floundering, certainly moving in a different direction than me, and decided to move on with a new guitarist before braking up. Meanwhile the keyboard player and I started to Jam at the ‘George Canning”, a smokey pub in Brixton, with the local rasta reggae band. It was there, after only a couple of gigs, that drummer Robbie Boudock recruited me into his band, South Of The River, and I moved into the squat in Wimbledon where they rehearsed in the basement.

Back at Kate’s Pimlico apartment, it was the morning of the S.R.N. results when Sue, one of the nurses, rushed in with the mail. The four young women ripped open the envelopes and there was immediate jubilation as one by one they got the news that their studying had been successful and they were now State Registered Nurses - that is except for Jane. It was clear from her face she had not passed. With consideration for her, the others subdued their celebrations and Jane announced she was going to the bathroom, which was shared with other apartments and was situated half a floor up. Ann (a tall Irish girl) asked if someone should go and talk to her, but the general opinion between the other two and myself was to leave her alone as everyone’s good news could only serve to make her disappointment more acute.

A line formed at the telephone as each new nurse, still in their night dresses, spread their news to friends and family. Half an hour passed and Jane did not return. On several occasions one or another of us would ask if we should check on her, yet it still seemed somehow intrusive. Kate and I were in the bedroom by the french doors which overlooked the small rectangular park across the street. At some point we became aware of sirens. I went onto the balcony, and on the street below several ambulances, police cars and a fire engine were pulling up at the base of the building. My first thought was that Jane had gone for a walk and maybe had an accident, but she was in her night gown. I told everyone I would go down and see what was going on and hurried down the two flights of stairs. I was greeted at the street by two plainclothes detectives on their way into the building.

“I’m worried about my friend,” I told them and they replied, “You better take a look at this.”

They led me back down the stone steps and onto the sidewalk to the right. On the pavement was a single light blue carpet slipper which I knew belonged to Jane.

As is common in this area, the ground floor is reached via a small bridge over a moat style basement. The moat, in turn, is separated from the sidewalk by ornate black spiked steel railings. Over a portion of these railings was a large light blue blanket which the detective slowly peeled back to reveal a body impaled on the spikes. The head was almost to the ground and feet raised high. Two spikes passed through the torso. Her face was blue black instead of pale. She was still in her night dress, I knew it was her but....... I walked back towards the steps then turned again to the body telling the detective I need to look again. Her face was so black! But I had to be sure before breaking the news to the others. The detective pulled back the blanket again - now I was sure. The night dress I had seen so many times flapped in the cool morning breeze and there on her foot was the other carpet slipper.

Jane had not gone to the bathroom but had continued up to the roof (about six stories) and, standing in her night dress, cast herself onto the railings. Later they would cut away a section of the railing and remove the still impaled body by use of a tow truck. The missing railings, now boarded up, was a constant reminder, over the next few weeks, of the pointless loss as the occupants of the apartment cleared out their stuff and moved out. I went through Jane’s possessions with her parents, weeks later, when only her things were left in the apartment. I don’t remember much on that day, except her mother cradling her daughters nurse’s hat and crying.

During those weeks after the suicide Kate and I walked in the small park and tried to come to terms with what had happened to Jane and Paul. Kate became depressed and was racked with guilt. I, although shaken by these events, began to feel a closure in my life. I took to walking along the Thames. One particular day, when the sun had broken through after several days of grey, I realized that all the links to my past were now severed and I could move forward to shape my life in any way I choose. I decided to re-invent myself and form a high energy band.

I moved out of South Of The River’s squat in Wimbledon. Things were getting really weird there with drug problems. This came to a head one night when around three a.m., a guy wielding an axe kicked down my door looking for the person who had the room before me. I found a new squat in Colliers Wood with a couple of the guys who had also had enough.

South Of The River fell apart, or should I say never got off the ground, so I started to put some pieces of my plan together myself. I went to an audition near the Oval cricket ground. The band was one of the many early punk bands called The Rejects. I don’t know if any of them went on to do anything else later, but they were rehearsing in a basement beneath a record store. They all had blond ‘Billy Idol’ type hair and plastic trousers. All they kept saying to me was “Play faster” or “Play louder”. I was hooked!

I didn’t get the job, but I knew exactly what to do. I would put my own punk rock band together. Through the paper I found a singer and bass player who promptly showed up at my place to rehearse. We called ourselves The Specimens, again a common name back then. We never quite got a drummer, but one of our songs called ‘Ronald Biggs’ (way before the Pistols made reference to him), ended up as B.1.C. in the Subs set. The original chorus was, “Ronald Biggs, Ronald Biggs, the papers know your name. Ronald Biggs, Ronald Biggs, I think I like your game”.

At this time London was alive with indie labels, clubs and The Clash, The Sex Pistols and Buzzcocks were soon stars, but a myriad of D.I.Y. bands were now equally important, putting out tons of 7” singles and playing at the ‘100 Club’, ‘Roxy’ and ‘Vortex’. One of these bands was The Users, who recorded two 7” singles, ‘Sick Of You’ and ‘Kicks In Style’. Alvin Gibbs, although credited as Bobby Kwok on the records, was the bass player. Small labels were springing up overnight while promoters staged live music at new venues too numerous to keep up with. This was the punk rock explosion and along with it came new attitudes and a new dress code.

I shared the new squat with a huge Irish guy named Joe and a transient anarchist called Stan who was in and out of jail. Late at night, Stan and I would sometimes have marathon ‘Risk’ games where he would occasionally be jubilant but would more often end up trashing the board against the wall. We lived off a huge sack of potatoes and another one of onions and didn’t ask where they came from. French Fries with fried onions were popular, as were baked potatoes, potato and onion soup, potato patties with onion rings and the piece-de-la-resistance - roast potatoes lightly seasoned with onion.

One night over a game of Risk, in response to my voicing my impatience in getting my punk band going, Stan told me about a friend of his who had a hairdressing salon in Tooting Broadway, but also sings in a kind of a punk band. Stan thought they were looking for a guitarist and also thought they were called the “US Jets”. I thanked him for the tip as my troops overwhelmed Brazil from the African coast (always a danger spot).

The next day Stan thrust a piece of paper in my hand with a number scrawled in pencil next to the name Charlie, a form of communication I came to know very well over the next six years.

“He’s expecting your call,” Stan informed me. Shortly after that, Stan was back in prison (Brixton) where I visited him once with cigarettes (he complained that I only brought 1 box). That was the last I saw of him, but the next week a friend of his (another Joe) moved into his room with his girl friend.

 

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